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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 4; Issue 5; September 02

Seth Column

A few things we need to know in order to understand headlines

Seth Lindstromberg

A You may fail to understand a headline for a number of reasons.
For instance, you may not know…

a) the meaning of a word or phrase-e.g., Row at AGM (A 'row', /rau/, is a dispute.)

b) what a certain abbreviation stands for-e.g., Row at AGM (AGM stands for 'annual general meeting'.)

c) what the grammatical structure of the headline is-e.g., Spin 'to end' Is spin a noun or a verb? (It is a noun meaning 'lack of honesty by government officials when speaking to the public-not lies but not really the truth either'. So, this headline means, Spin 'is going to end'. The quotation marks mean that somebody said this.)

=> (b) and (c) have to do with linguistic knowledge; (a) too, usually…but see further below.

d) who or what is meant by a name-e.g., Whitehall uneasy (Whitehall means the UK civil service, which has its headquarters in the former Whitehall Palace.)

=> (d) has to do with broader cultural knowledge or even general knowledge.

Here are two more examples of headlines that we need the right bits of general knowledge in order to understand fully.

Wolf heads pack
Sailing: Glynn William's crew on the IC 45, Wolf,…took the lead…with wins in races three and four….

Here, we need to know that a group of wolves is a pack and each pack, apparently, has a lead wolf.

To fully understand the one below, we need know that there are 'gas fired' and 'coal fired' power plants-i.e., ones that use gas as fuel and ones that use coal. Further, we need the linguistic knowledge that to be fired means 'to be sacked, to be dismissed from your job'.

Coal fired
[About closing coal mines.]

Let's return to category (a) and have a closer look at it, starting with idioms and puns.

B - Idioms These are phrases whose meaning you cannot easily guess even if you know the meaning of the individual words that make the phrase up. For instance, by and large means 'in general', but you would never guess that just by knowing by, and, and large.

An example of an idiom in a headline: US wants Arafat 'kicked upstairs'

This might be hard to understand because of the idiom kick someone upstairs. It means 'give someone a job of higher status but less power so that they will (a) cause less trouble but (b) not be disgraced'.

C Puns
In a typical pun, a word (or phrase) that you would expect to be there is replaced by one which is not really correct but which has a topical relation to what is being talked about. For example, suppose someone wants to buy a poster of a painting, but they don't have enough money. This person might say, "Oh, dear. I don't have enough Monet. Ha. Ha." That is a pun. The word money is what we expect. The word Monet isn't, but it resembles money in sound and it relates to the topic of 'paintings'. Usually (always?), in order to interpret a pun we need not just linguistic knowledge but cultural/general knowledge too-e.g., Monet was a painter.

An example of a pun in a headline:

Much in the aria at AGM for Alan Smith
Alan Smith had a lovely time at Covent Garden the other day, watching Verdi's tale of intrigue…"

To understand this, you need to know the following-

    Covent Garden is where the Royal Opera is. (Cultural/general knowledge)
    Opera singers sometimes sing 'arias'. (Ditto)
    There is an expression be in the air which is used like this-"There were various topics/rumours in the air…" (Linguistic knowledge)
The headline therefore means something like, 'At the AGM, Alan Smith (who happened also to have seen an opera by Verdi) heard a lot of topics discussed'.

Here is another pun-

End of Sommer at Telekom
Ron Sommer, who resigned yesterday as chief executive of Deutsche Telekom, … Relevant knowledge-summer is a season which comes to an end and when it does we may feel a little sad.

And another-

Taxing returns
Around 98% of accountants surveyed by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants had problems with their self-assessment tax returns because of Inland Revenue systems errors.

Here, given that the topic is taxes, the phrase we might expect is tax returns (i.e., those forms you have to fill in each year about the money you earned and so on). But there is also a word taxing, which means 'arduous, tiring'. The article tells us that there were errors in the tax returns. The headline tells us that all this errors must have been taxing/tiring for someone (i.e., the people who had to deal with the errors).

D - Metaphors
Punning is a kind of wordplay, but not all wordplay results in puns. For example-

Glaxo SmithKline on sick list and the R&D remedy's found wanting
Glaxo SmithKline is one of the companies demanding most urgent medical attention. Yesterday's 28P share price fall, which pushed the shares to a five-year low, is no 24-hour bug. The shares have halved in value since the beginning of 1999 and there's no sign of a cure for the company's woes….

In the headline the writer begins to refer to a company as if it were a sick person. This implied analogy (i.e., metaphor) is continued in the article that follows the headline. Why? (1) The company produces pharmaceuticals. (2) It is not in good condition. (3) The author wants to display a sense of fun. A reader who recognizes all this-or at least (1) and (2)-understands both the headline and the article better than a reader who doesn't.

E - Metaphors vs clichës and idioms
An especially successful expression of metaphor is one which evokes an image of some kind. Here is one which may evoke kinaesthetic and/or visual images-e.g.,
Company's hopes crash into brick wall
But metaphorical expressions that are used often tend to lose their power to call up images. When this happens, the first thing that happens is that the metaphorical expression becomes a clichë.

Of course, the best headline writers prefer fresh, image-rich wording, but if they can't think of anything new, they will gladly use clichës instead-e.g.,
Merger 'doomed to end in tears'
Doomed to end in tears is a phrase one hears or reads sufficiently often that it probably causes very few native-speaking adults to experience images of actual crying. For most native-speakers this phrase is probably a cliché (or a 'dead metaphor').

Perhaps every idiom was first an original, interesting, easy-to understand metaphorical expression, then a cliché. Then, as time passed, the images or stories behind these expressions were forgotten. When that happened, the metaphorical expression became an idiom. Many, if not most, phrasal verbs probably have just such a history. Here is one in a headline-

Caught out
The chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, who was arrested for threatening behaviour at Lord's on Saturday, said last night he "regretted" his confrontation with police…

To get the joke here we need the cultural knowledge that Lord's is a cricket ground. We also need to know what caught out means. The author used this expressed in the headline because it comes from cricket. The root of the metaphor is as follows. A batter who hits a ball which is caught by an opposing player is 'out' (i.e., cannot continue batting) or, more precisely, 'caught out'. In everyday English to say that someone has been caught is to say that they have been foiled in some way so that they cannot continue with their (bad) behaviour.

F - Metonymy
The figure of speech known as metonymy has to do with 'association'. There are two examples in this headline-

Dealers tear their hair out in a white-knuckle ride
The rollercoaster ride continued for investors yesterday as London's equity markets endured another volatile session.

Let's take the second one first. To understand it we may need to read a bit of the article and see that a day of stock prices going far up and then suddenly far down is spoken of (metaphorically) as a rollercoaster ride. Now, some people get frightened when they ride a rollercoaster and so they grip the safety bar tightly. This causes their knuckles to turn white. So, the association is 'white knuckles - fright'.

The other instance of metonymy is tear their hair out. That is, the act of tearing your hair out suggests, or may be associated with, desperation.

Thus, the metonyms in this headline tell us that the dealers were desperate and frightened.

Here is another metonym.

Cadbury loses its fizz as beverage sales fall

First, we need the cultural knowledge that Cadburys produces not just chocolate but soft drinks, including ones that are carbonated or, in everyday English, fizzy.

Most people think it is bad when a carbonated drink loses its fizz and that such a drink is 'flat' and unappealing. The association is 'loss of fizz - unappealing'. So the headline means, 'Cadbury stocks lose their appeal to buyers as beverage sales fall'.

G - Closing observation about the distinction 'linguistic vs cultural/general knowledge'

There is no sharp division between linguistic knowledge on the one hand and cultural/general knowledge on the other. Still, the distinction seems to me to have some use as a heuristic.

The end SethL@hilderstone.ac.uk

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